Behind Protests, Police Lines,
An Orgy of Violence Porn
Goes Up at the Met Opera
By SETH LIPSKY, Special to the Sun | October 21, 2014
The thing I kept thinking about at the opening night of “The Death of Klinghoffer” is that it’s not the first time that the Metropolitan Opera has put on its boards a drama about the murder of a Jew — or Jews. There is, after all, Nabucco, Giuseppe Verdi’s masterpiece about the conquest of Jerusalem and the exile of the Jews. It features Va, Pensiero, known as the Chorus of the Hebrew Slaves — a profoundly sympathetic melodic evocation of Jewish longing.
“Klinghoffer,” John Adams’ opera about the hijacking of the Achille Lauro, turns out to be a different story. This had already been figured out by the Jewish leadership in New York. They have for months been protesting plans to mount this production. The protest Monday, across the street from Lincoln Center, included an ideological cross section of politicians, such as Mayor Giuliani, Representatives Peter King and Carolyn Maloney, Ronald Lauder of the World Jewish Congress, and a former governor of New York State, David Paterson.
Jewish protests had already won cancellation of the Met’s plan to broadcast “Klinghoffer” globally, but the Met insisted on going ahead with the stage production, using the slogan: “See it. Then Decide.” I tried to get several friends to join me for opening night, but one after another they demurred. No one in my circle wanted to see a celebration of Jew being murdered as he sat in a wheelchair. I, however, am besotted with the newspaperman’s vice, even if my heart is with the protesters.
Before the opera, I spent two hours with the several hundred gathered in Dante Park across from the Lincoln Center. In front of the Opera’s own plaza, across Ninth Avenue (and the police lines), a line of more protesters sat in wheelchairs. Their backs were to the Met’s vast windows, through which shone the magnificent murals by, in Marc Chagall, the same artist who did the paintings in the Knesset.
When, in 1896, the German anti-Semite Hermann Ahlwardt came to New York, the police commissioner at the time, Theodore Roosevelt, assigned him a bodyguard of officers — all of them Jewish. No such jolly gestures were made in the lobby of the Met, though scores of cops were there along with an opening night crowd sipping flutes of champagne. The house was all but filled, and the audience greeted the conductor with a robust ovation.
It happens that I have a high tolerance — even love for — art and literature, and I have tried to learn the tricks it can play. An early lesson was the most famous anti-Semitic drama, Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” I thrilled to it the first time I read it as a young student, only to be startled by the teacher whom I’d approached after class to say: “But isn’t Shylock the hero?” The teacher glared at me in a way that suggested I was not cut out for education, an opinion widely shared.
The truth is that I often look at things through the wrong end of the telescope. Throughout “Klinghoffer” I kept trying to figure out if John Adams’ dirge was susceptible to some positive interpretation. The character of Klinghoffer does at one point make what might be called the only manly speech in the whole spectacle (he rises from his wheel chair and denounces the terrorists).
At the end of the day, though, “Klinghoffer” is about watching a Jew get shot to death in the back of the head. Leon and Marilyn Klinghoffer’s brave daughters, Lisa and Ilsa, were right to denounce the Met’s staging of the murder. It’s an orgy of violence pornography at the expense of their father and the Jews. It is bizarre to sit in an opera house in the middle of the city with the world’s second largest Jewish population and hear its performance greeted with a long ovation while the conductor and cast take their bows.
There is no doubt that some of history’s greatest artists hated the Jews. My own favorite of the ilk is Degas. But Degas did not use his brushes to vent his anti-Jewish sentiments. He made glorious, beautiful paintings. I thought of that as I exited the Met. Walking toward the subway with the crowd, I stopped to chat with two ladies I’d overheard expressing their disappointment. “There was no . . .” one of them said and paused. “Va Pensiero,” I offered. She nodded. “Well,” she added, “there hasn’t been a Verdi since Verdi.”
A version of this column appears at Haaretz.com.